Origins 1997: Darwin Bromley Dodges a Bullet
by Allen Varney
Don't get me started about the Origins Awards. They're prone to egregious ballot-stuffing and irrelevant to the very gamers whom we implore to vote on them. They do often recognize worthy games, but in the context of rampant vanity, crass egotism, and vulgarity. However, there was one magical moment at the 1997 Origin Awards I'd like to pass along.
Compelled to attend the annual ceremony in 1997 in my capacity as news columnist for a couple of gaming magazines, I found the affair tedious and tense. Present were three distinct communities -- roleplaying/card gamers, miniatures gamers, and wargamers -- each with no knowledge of, and little respect for, the others. Hearing the presenters stumble in reciting nominees for awards they knew nothing about, I felt embarrassment and, in the incident I'm about to describe, dread. Yet sometimes our most moving experiences arise in exactly such situations.
Certainly gamers aware of the field's history must approve the Adventure Gaming Hall of Fame's induction that year of Darwin Bromley, co-founder of Mayfair Games, co-designer of Empire Builder, big-time game collector, and tireless promoter of railroad games. However, the award's presenter was actor Bruce Campbell, talented star of the Evil Dead movies and the TV series Brisco County Jr. Campbell made a hit as an Origins media guest, but his impressive skills happened not to include familiarity with the career of Darwin Bromley.
Reading from a prepared script before a large audience, Campbell started to recite Bromley's accomplishments: "'When you talk about gaming, you're really talking about Darwin Bromley.'" His expression eloquently conveyed the emotion, "I can't believe I'm actually reading this." Then Campbell, showing a true actor's instinct to rise above his material, began ad-libbing: "I remember when we were both kids at summer camp, Darwin -- or, as I called him, 'Little Dar' -- came up to me. [Small child's voice.] 'Hey Bruce, look, I made up a game!' [Derisive sneer.] 'Yeah, sure, Darrrwin!'" Oh, how he drew it out: "Darrrrrwin!"
The audience erupted in nervous laughter. As he continued reading, Campbell played the crowd like a violin, embroidering in jocular spirit on Bromley's every accomplishment: "'His game collection now fills 23 warehouse palettes' -- and, friends, if you've worked in the warehousing industry, you know how impressive that is. [Pause.] But wait! It gets better!"
Audience members had by now dissolved into helpless merriment -- all save myself, seated near the front and shrivelling in sympathetic torment for Bromley, whose life of accomplishments was being hoist aloft and batted about like a pinata. People were taking up the cry: "Little Dar!" Who among us could endure similar provocation?
At last Campbell finished, to tumultuous applause, and presented the plaque -- whereupon, it developed, Bromley was not present. Mayfair exec Louis Rexing accepted on his behalf and ran off to find him. Awards host Richard Berg joked, "We've decided to withdraw Darwin's award and give it to Bruce Campbell." Applause. Campbell left. I sighed in relief. The ceremony continued.
Minutes later, during a pause in the proceedings, Bromley entered at speed, out of breath. Holding his plaque reverently, he walked to the microphone amid sporadic cries of "Little Dar!" Holding out the plaque, Bromley said solemnly, "I was playing in the finals of the Puffing Billy tournament --" (the annual Origins train-game event named for the first patented locomotive) "-- and I guess that has a lot to do with this award. What we do in this industry has always meant a lot to me...."
He spoke on, movingly. In an instant, a new mood spread perceptibly through the crowd. I felt it as a literal change in the air: an abrupt shift from hilarity to respect. Bromley spoke on, his voice breaking as he concluded, "I'm having to build a new life now --" (a poignant allusion to the sale of Mayfair earlier that year to Iron Crown Enterprises) "-- but these last 15 or 20 years in this hobby, working with you all, that has been my real life."
Bromley received a long and heartfelt standing ovation. Afterward, I remarked to everyone who would listen that the entire incident had worked out absolutely as well as it possibly could.